Aboard the HMS Walker in the North Atlantic March 17, 1941

On this date in 1941 U-99, skippered by Otto Kretschmer, one of Germany’s most famous U‑boat com­manders, had just fired the last of her tor­pedoes when she was spotted by a British destroyer south­east of Ice­land in the North Atlantic. By this time Kretsch­mer, on his eighth patrol, had sunk 45 ships for about 270,000 tons and cap­tured one for another 2,000 tons. For his feats the 29‑year-old lieu­ten­ant com­mander had earned the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords and the num­ber-one spot on the Aces of the Deep list. (Adolf Hitler per­sonally in­vited Kretsch­mer to Berlin for the award ceremony and asked him to stay for lunch.)

Kretschmer’s second watch officer, who was on the bridge that night, imme­di­ately ordered the year-old Type VIIB U‑boat to crash dive. But once the boat was beneath the sur­face, it was quickly fixed on by the early sub­marine detec­tion system known as ASDIC (later replaced by sonar). Under attack by destroyers HMS Walker and Vanoc, the U‑99 was driven deep (700 ft) and severely damaged by depth charges that smashed air, fuel, and bal­last tanks. Kretsch­mer had no choice but to blow all bal­last tanks and shoot to the sur­face. Both British destroyers opened fire on the U‑99 with 4‑in guns, though after two minutes neither had found their tar­get. Kretsch­mer ordered his crew to aban­don ship and scuttle the boat, then he dashed off a final radio message to Kriegs­marine Adm. Karl Doenitz at U‑boat head­quarters in Kerneval (out­side Lorient), occupied France, announcing their cap­ture. Three U‑99 crew­men lost their lives while forty men, including Kretschmer, were rescued and became POWs.

The capture of Kretschmer and crew came quickly on the heels of two U‑boat Ritter­kreuz cap­tains lost at sea: Guenther Prien (U‑47) and Joachim Schepke (U‑100), whose naval career was ended by the same two British destroyers that ended Kretschmer’s. Kretsch­mer spent the remainder of the war briefly in Grize­dale Hall, Britain’s main POW camp for German officers (nick­named “U‑boat Hotel” for the number of Kriegs­marine prisoners held there), and then in Canada’s Bow­man­ville POW camp, a former boys school 40 miles east of Toron­to, Ontario. In Septem­ber 1943 Cana­dian mili­tary intel­li­gence and police thwarted a German plan to rescue Kretsch­mer and three other high-ranking naval officers from Bow­man­ville. After the war, Kretsch­mer joined the West German Navy and in May 1965 became the Chief of Staff of the NATO Com­mand, retiring in 1970 with a rank of Flottillen­admiral (rear admiral).

Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz and Three of His Most Successful U-Boat Skippers

Grand Admiral Karl DoenitzFamed U-Boat Commander: Lieutenant Commander Otto Kretschmer

Left: Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz (1891–1980). At the start of World War II, Doenitz was the senior sub­marine officer in the Kriegs­marine (German Navy). In January 1943 he assumed the office of Com­mander-in-Chief of the Kriegs­marine. After Hitler’s sui­cide on April 30, 1945, Doenitz succeeded to the highest polit­ical office in Nazi Germany, that of Reich Presi­dent (the office of Fuehrer was abolished upon Hitler’s death). Following his arrest by the Allies on May 25, 1945, Doenitz was indicted as a major war crimi­nal at the post­war Nurem­berg Trials and sentenced to 10 years in prison. After his release he settled into retire­ment out­side the port city of Hamburg, writing his memoirs and occa­sionally giving lec­tures, but he made no attempt in the new West Germany to serve his country politically or militarily.

Right: Lieutenant Commander Otto Kretschmer (1912–1998). On his last patrol in March 1941 he sank 10 ships. Following his cap­ture he spent almost seven years as a POW, first in England, then in Canada. After his release Kretsch­mer continued his distinguished service in the Bundesmarine.

Famous U-Boat Commander: Lieutenant Commander Guenther PrienFamous U-Boat Commander: Lieutenant Commander Joachim Schepke

Left: Lieutenant Commander Guenther Prien (1908–1941). First member of the Kriegs­marine to receive the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Germany’s highest mili­tary decora­tion at the time of its presenta­tion to Prien. Under Prien’s com­mand U‑47 sank over 30 Allied ships—8 ships for a total of 51,483 shipping tons in June 1940 alone. Prien’s most famous exploit was to sink the British battle­ship HMS Royal Oak at anchor in Scapa Flow, Great Britain’s chief naval base in the Orkney Islands far to the north in Scot­land, at a cost to the Royal Navy of 1,234 sea­men. Scapa Flow controlled the entrances to the North Sea.

Right: Lieutenant Commander Joachim Schepke (1912–1941). Schepke was the seventh recipient of the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves. A con­vinced Nazi, Schepke sank 37 Allied ships and damaged 4 more. After Schepke’s death, Joseph Goebbels’ propa­ganda minis­try held the hand­some skipper (nick­named “Her Majesty’s best-looking officer”) as an example for German youth to follow.

Doenitz’s U-Boats: Their Rise and Demise in the Battle of the Atlantic